José Guadalupe Posada & Dia de muertos
When Mexican graphic artist José Guadalupe Posada died in 1913 he could not have imagined that his satirical calaveras or skulls would become such a ubiquitous presence around Halloween, which happens to coincide with Mexico’s Day of the Dead or Día de muertos, mistranslated as Día de los Muertos and horrifies language purists.
Posada lived through the almost uninterrupted 30 years of the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship or porfiriato and his calavera images became the venue to satirize the excesses of Mexican bourgeois society. French artist Jean Charlot encountered Posada’s work while visiting Mexican muralist Diego Rivera in the 1920s and is credited with providing a wider audience for the satirical artist.
It would be restricting to associate Posada’s work only with his calaveras. Born in the state of Aguascalientes, Mexico, Posada demonstrated an early talent for drawing, taught lithography, and made a living as an illustrator of magazines, books, and commercial products. In 1888 he moved to Mexico City to join the printing shop of Antonio Vanegas Arroyo. It is there that Posada produced thousands of illustrations for popular broadsheets, some dedicated to sensationalistic themes. Posada's imagery was aimed at the urban working classes, shedding light on the struggles of the underdog and the downtrodden while exposing the habits of Mexico's middle and upper class members to his sharp satirical wit.
For a 2002 show of Posada’s work at the Stanford Libraries, exhibit curator Vanessa D. Kam noted: “In addition to his calaveras and illustrations of crimes of the heart, Posada’s etchings and engravings documented train wrecks, floods, and other disasters, at times looking beyond Mexico to world events such as the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. They also celebrated popular heroes, whether they be larger-than-life bandits whose character and resilience somehow overshadowed the moral deficits of their crimes in the eyes of empathetic readers, historical heroes of the Mexican Independence and Revolution such as Miguel Hidalgo and Emiliano Zapata, and popular bullfighters… Posada also produced scenes from daily life, illustrations for corridos, or folksongs celebrating the deeds of popular heroes, a substantial number of broadsheets devoted to popular religious icons, board games, and covers for chapbooks ostensibly created for children such as the series focused on Mexican history entitled the Biblioteca del niño mexicano (Library of the Mexican Child).”
The Stanford Libraries house a collection of over 1000 images that document Jose Guadalupe Posada in all its multiple manifestations. The collection has been digitized in its entirety and includes 21 calavera images.